The inherent risks assumed by lighthouses and their keepers were legendary and included the need to brave harrowing winds and tumultuous seas in order to send out a guiding light to mariners caught in the grip of storm-tossed waters. Seldom was much thought given to the prospect of the lighthouse itself being struck. Yet, on a fateful day in October 1953, it was amidst the disorienting affects of fog that the Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse would meet its eventual destruction.
Looking back, Delaware Bay’s Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse seemed doomed from the beginning. Even prior to a temporary light being established on the site in 1907, construction was delayed various times due to swift currents, destructive waves, the encountering of quicksand on the selected site and a collision with barges in tow. As if this wasn’t enough, a workman was washed overboard by a rogue wave and drowned, while storm waves tore one of the large work scows loose from the lighthouse and sent it adrift for two days before a lighthouse tender rescued the lone government inspector on board.
Despite these setbacks, the lighthouse was completed and lit for the first time on February 1, 1910. The 57-foot sentinel was a red, octagonal, brick dwelling situated atop a cylindrical caisson and topped with a brown lantern and fourth order Fresnel lens showing a white light
The December 19, 1954 issue of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin noted the unique dilemma facing the keepers of this light by stating, “When visibility was poor, ships often passed so near the lighthouse that the whole building throbbed and shuddered from the vibrations of the ship engines... Ships had struck it glancing blows repeatedly, much to the concern of the men stationed there. It was no laughing matter that the four-man crew of the lighthouse slept in their lifejackets, ready to jump into the bay should their hazardous house come tumbling down.” After some close calls and serious damage inflicted by a November 1951 hurricane, the U.S. Coast Guard removed the resident keepers and automated the light.
On October 20, 1953, the freighter Steel Apprentice was groping through a dense fog enveloping the Delaware Bay. Having passed Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse, the ore-laden vessel charted its next turn along the dangerous northeasterly section of Cross Ledge. The captain and pilot stood on the wing of the ship straining to see directly ahead. To make matters worse, the ship’s radar was down and visibility was zero. The captain ordered the ship to proceed cautiously up the channel, when suddenly the ship struck Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse. Even at such a slow speed, the lighthouse was nearly completely destroyed, with only the caisson base and about 10-feet of the dwelling remaining after the impact. The captain of the vessel was distraught thinking the lighthouse was manned. He was extremely relieved to hear the pilot say the light had been automated nearly two years prior.
After the destruction of the superstructure to Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard erected a red skeleton tower with an automated light in 1954. During this time, the color of the caisson was changed from brown to international orange and the light was controlled via a submarine cable by the lightkeepers at Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse until automation of the Delaware Bay lights in 1973.
Today, massive ships, some over 900-feet in length, continue to pass the light during their northbound transit up the Delaware Bay to ports of call in Wilmington, Philadelphia and Camden. Yet, if you listen close enough, the eerie quiet surrounding Elbow of Cross Ledge Light will tell you a story of a time when the sounds of silence were shattered by a sudden impact of historical proportions.
This story appeared in the
April 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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